The Jewish Ethicist: Right to Revenge
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The Jewish Ethicist: Right to Revenge

The Jewish Ethicist: Right to Revenge

Is taking revenge ever justified?

by

Q. I’ve been taught that revenge is wrong. But isn’t a little revenge sometimes permissible when we need it to protect our rights?

A. You should thank your teachers. The Torah strictly warns us against taking revenge: “Don’t take vengeance and don’t bear a grudge against the members of your nation; love your neighbor as yourself”. (Leviticus 19:18.) And in many columns we have pointed out that it is unethical to slander or denigrate someone if there is any kind of vindictive motive.

Jewish tradition provides a number of distinctions which can help us sort out the exact extent of this ethical obligation.

One kind of vengeance is categorically forbidden: bearing a grudge when someone fails to do us a favor. The Talmud asks: “What is an example of vindictiveness or bearing a grudge?” The example is given of a person who asks his neighbor to lend him a saw, and the neighbor says no. The next day the same neighbor asks to borrow an axe. If the first person is able to lend the axe but refuses in reaction to the neighbor’s refusal, this is vindictive. And even if he agrees to lend the axe but points out that this is despite the neighbor’s refusal, then he is bearing a grudge.

In other words, even though small kindnesses like these are a major obligation in Jewish culture, if someone fails to help us we have to just forgive and forget. This policy prevents minor disagreements from snowballing into catastrophic feuds.

What if someone actually insults us or causes us harm? The Talmud states: "Those who are insulted but do not insult back, hear themselves slandered but don’t respond, act with love and rejoice in tribulations -- of these Scripture states that ‘Those who love Him are like the sun rising with all its might’"! The righteous person will refrain from taking any action, and not escalate the dispute; but it is permissible to remember the incident and maintain cool relations until the other party asks forgiveness.

If a person does forget himself in the heat of a dispute and responds to an insult or an attack, he is not living up to the ideal ethical level, but it is not considered a sinful act. However, when the next day comes around and things have cooled down, it is again impermissible to react in anger. Here also the general idea is clear: responding in the heat of anger is not likely to escalate the dispute; but after the dispute has cooled down it is absolutely forbidden to renew it. The injured party may demand that the attacker apologize and replace any loss, but under no circumstances should the spat be turned into a feud.

What about those cases in Scripture where we find that vengeance is proper? For example, the children of Israel are ordered to attack the Midianites in revenge for their aggression (Numbers 31:2); and Samson is granted Divine assistance when seeks vengeance against the Philistines for the loss of his eyes (Judges 16:28). The distinction is clear: in these cases the leaders of the people are not being petty or vindictive for their own private honor, but rather are defending the honor as well as the safety and well-being of the entire people.

In the book of Deuteronomy (32:35), God tells us, "Vengeance belongs to Me." Only the Creator is completely free of any petty motivations, and He has the perfect knowledge and power to make sure that vengeance is carried out in an equitable way. But we humans should strive mightily to erase any vindictive feelings, and respond to slights in a way that allows us to defend our dignity, yet takes care not to burn any bridges of understanding and good will.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Yoma 23a; Sema commentary on Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 421:24.

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to jewishethicist@aish.com

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of Aish.com and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at www.besr.org.

JCT Center For Business Ethics

Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.

Published: January 11, 2003


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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) Rachamim Dwek, April 16, 2014 4:27 AM

Tell the Truth

Leviticus 19:18, which you have quoted, applies ONLY to fellow Jews. We are commanded to take revenge against Goyim and to do so collectively, as in Maharal's Gur Arieh (Bereshit 34:13). You are not helping anyone by deceiving them.

(1) Anonymous, May 8, 2007 11:37 PM

I think some clarification is needed here

One of the principle differences between Judaism and Christianity is Judaism's view on forgiveness vs. justice. If a crime has been committed, it is just to punish the criminal for the greater good and saftey of the community. Also, forgiveness should not be granted for serious injury unless the offender has repented and asked forgiveness from his/her victim, and even then some crimes such as murder are deemed by the Torah unforgivable due to the irrevocable nature of the act. In my understanding, the passage you refer to is meant by the Torah to prevent holding grudges against other jews for petty insults, not as instructions on how to confront serious violence or abuse. If a person vindictively hurts you or someone else, it is just to act in anger and similar violence in order to punish the offender and prevent further harm to yourself or others. "Do not stand idly by while your neighbor's blood is shed." (Leviticus) or "He who sees evil and does not protest is an accomplice in the act."(Talmud) Unfortunately when dealing with physically or psychologically violent people, it is unlikely that you will be able to stop or change their behavior without reacting with similar violence. Anyone who has ever faced a bully on the playground as a child knows that the bully only changes their behavior after recieving violent correction. When I was about 12, I got beat up and humiliated often by one particular student. Only after I beat him up severly did he stop hurting me and other students. Following that incident, he actually became a good person and we became close friends. The lessons of the holocaust should be enough to teach us that pacifism only encourages aggression. Due to the world "turning the other cheek" for years, six million of our people were killed. If the world had reacted with ANGER and VIOLENCE a few years earlier, the mass murder and dehumanization of half of our people could have been prevented. Violence should never be taken lightly, and if correction is possible in the early stages of an offense through other means that is in some cases preferable. However the torah does not teach pacifism, and our history should have taught us by now that not only is violence somtimes permitted, in certain cases it is a moral obligation. (see Moses and the Egyptian taskmaster he killed)

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